“They’re both sleeping! Hurry!”
Not exactly seduction-speak, this is the kind of statement that typically precedes sex these days. My husband and I are parents of a three-and-a-half-year-old and five-month-old so we’ve become sexual opportunists. More often than not, he’s the instigator, pulling me in as I’m pouring myself a glass of Pinot Noir and settling in to watch Stephen Colbert gab with celebrities.
Still, on most nights, TV and wine are my reward for getting through the day — not sex. After a day spent with one miniature person attached to my boobs and an older one clutching at my lower extremities, the last thing I crave is more touch. I’ve heard fellow new-mom friends throw around the phrase “touched out.” As an affectionate, physical person who deliberately sought out a physical, affectionate partner, I didn’t believe it would happen to me.
It did and I hate feeling this way. My romantic connection with my husband was what started all this to begin with and I don’t want to forego intimacy, a core pillar of a healthy partnership. But, on the rare occasion when both kids are asleep at the same time, having sex feels like a borderline obligation. We rush toward so-called “maintenance sex” — fitting it in regardless of mood — where we can. The notion that we have to get to it quickly is a turn-off, but it’s better than nothing. We have to make it happen or it won’t happen.
After our first baby, we didn’t have this problem. She slept like a rock, and stayed asleep for many hours, so we had a window. A lot of afternoons when we were home, she’d be napping, so, after my recovery period, we resumed business as usual, though as she entered her toddler years, getting amorous to the sounds of Sofia the First or Daniel Tiger in the background from the other room wasn’t exactly the most titillating. Three years later, our second baby changed everything. We got a light sleeper this go-round. Figuring out when and how to incorporate sex became — and remains — a huge challenge.
Dry spells inevitably occur in any long-term relationship, when love turns from passionate to companionate, as psychologist Elaine Hatfield has described. I know long-term monogamous childless couples that experience the same sex drought. But intimacy during the early years of parenthood is one of the toughest areas to negotiate. A few weeks ago, a mom-friend and I talked about this in my kitchen as our 3-year-olds played in the other room. We don’t want to be “withholding,” we agreed, but the last thing we desire after a day of mothering is yet one more person on our bodies. That the “one more person” is my beloved, I find tragic.
I’ve tried various approaches to try to feel “sexy” again, such as attending Zumba classes. I thought, this what I need: to dance, to sweat, to feel that endorphin high, to get back in shape. I started taking the class and enjoyed it. A song accompanying one of my favorite dances entails the repetition of a lyric I chronically misheard as “reach your sexy body.” While swishing my post-baby hips and shimmying my belly-jiggle, I couldn’t help but think that perceiving my body as sexy ever again might be out of “reach.”
Even though Jason has given me only positive feedback on my post-baby body, saying he loves it, I need to feel back at home in my body myself. After a few months of hanging in there, I fit into pre-pregnancy pants. But slimming down wasn’t the only barrier between the bedroom and us.
Beneath aesthetic concerns are hormonal ones. I learned from my first birth, a C-section, that not having a vaginal birth doesn’t stop the unfortunate sandpaper feeling of post-childbirth sex. That’s all in the hormones.
This time, the feeling has persisted well past the six-week sex clearance, leaving me weakened and depleted. My libido hibernates. Even though birth and recovery were easier the second time around, with lowered estrogen from breastfeeding it takes even more time to be fully ready and in the mood. But we’re so crunched for it — and a baby might start wailing at any minute — that speediness enters the equation. And speedy, especially for women, equals not-sexy.
This leads me to the ultimate factor that holds the key to this proverbial and unwanted chastity belt: Time. The primary thing it takes me to get in the mood these days is the very thing I most lack. As I write this, my three-and-a-half year old is home from school with a mystery illness while the five-month-old sleep-nurses for her nap, waking tearfully if I disengage. I’m sleep-deprived and my boobs have been sucked to deflation. In short: Everything that happened and is happening to my body points to the fact that sex will yet again be the last thing on my mind at day’s end. If I can barely carve out time to compose a short essay about sex after parenthood, how can I find time to relax enough to get into the mood to actually feel like doing it?
Nighttime brings our dinner and preschool lunch preparation, bath, and bedtime rituals of which I’m currently sole provider — our preschooler currently only wants mommy to read at least five bedtime stories. Then I retreat to the “big bed” and nurse the baby until she falls asleep. I usually fall asleep first, killing any potential for a “Mom Party,” let alone sex.
The weirdest part is that, circumstantially, we’ve been afforded every imaginable privilege: decent work hours, in-laws with a part-time apartment on our block, and a date-night babysitter. And yet most days sex still feels impossible — or simply doesn’t happen in the flurry of energy that goes into work, parenting, and managing daily life with a family.
Even on date nights, my husband and I go out and bond, enjoy an adult meal, get into conversations we wouldn’t have if the kids were around. But when the date is done, we return home, I climb into bed with the kids, and Jason gets his “Dad party,” reading news on his phone or watching TV with a thimbleful of bourbon.
Recently, I decided that finding somewhere quiet and private out of the house. At home, we’re surrounded by stuffed animals and tummy time mats, sit on squeak toys, and hear Peppa Pig playing from the TV—not exactly the stuff of which sensual dreams are made.The best solution for us has been a rentable private space, in our case, a hot tub and sauna facility in our California town.
“I’m so glad we live here,” I said to Jason the other night as we soaked in a tub outdoors in mid-January during a lightly falling drizzle. After a while of talking and hanging out we emerged from the tub to get amorous…on the cold, hard deck—and discover this is also not ideal.
When I spoke with Jason about our “solution,” he said that this also feels forced, as if we “have” to do it when we go to the tubs, whether we feel like it or not. This last outing, for instance, he was sick, but felt obligated because that was “our time.”
So what then? Wait it out until our kids are old enough for sleepovers, or doing their own afternoon activities? That could take years, so we do need to find an interim solution. Don’t get me wrong — these early years offer many a magical moment: baby’s first laughs, the preschooler’s detailed recollections of her dreams, the snuggles and love, adventures in the great outdoors, and experiencing our senses of joy and wonder anew through theirs. That’s what makes the other stuff — sleep and sex deprivation, fewer romantic nights out, chronic states of cleaning up a mess — worth it.
Though I don’t physically feel sexy or sensual, a desire I harbor even less is to be abstinent. I know our relationship needs more attention than I’m giving it right now. I have to keep reminding myself that “right now” is a very singular phase. When my husband initiates, bless his soul, I am able to get into it and am glad he reminds me that the erotic side of my being can, and will, emerge from hibernation.
I wish I had an ultimate answer, a higher libido, and a society with less shame or stigma around the topic of sex so we could talk this out more — with each other, friends, family, the world — and find solutions.
While texting with Jason about the condition of our daughter’s painful ear, I had a thought: Jason could ask his parents to take the kids to their place so we could “have the house to ourselves for a couple of hours.” He readily admitted he would feel very uncomfortable asking them that. So, maybe the solution lies in simply in abandoning the need to be secretive? Everybody knows how these kids came into existence in the first place, but in our Puritan-rooted culture, the absurdity persists that, married with children, we still feel bashful talking about sex and therefore bar ourselves from finding potential solutions in community.
I then suggested that instead of the hot tubs we go somewhere secluded and “bring our own blankets.”
“That is a very good idea,” he responded. “It’s like I’m in high school again. We’ll have to get food at Denny’s and see a bad horror movie before to fully complete the effect.”
More little text bubbles popped up on my phone. What was he writing? Something juicy? Something sexy? Maybe foreplay in the form of sexting could become a silent means of turning each other on while waiting for the children to fall asleep. I eagerly anticipated the message, the flirtatious banter that was about to take place, the way we texted when we were first dating, cleverly spinning every word for maximum effect of eliciting affection….
Did you take her to the doctor yet?
So, no, we’re not going to be able to separate being lovers from being parents. But we can keep seeking, and hopefully finding, ways to slip between the lines here and there.